John Edis’ Prison Guv’nor diaries returned to Cambridge – 1968

Another one of Mike Petty’s finds, it now resides in the Institute of Criminology Library Store.

Above – from the University of Cambridge’s online catalogue. It would be ***wonderful*** if someone could digitise and transcribe his diaries for us town people to read – only Governor Edis did lock up several of our less-law-abiding predecessors for quite some time!

I mentioned the Guv’nor in a previous blogpost, citing also Prof Melissa Terras’ experience of getting manuscripts transcribed through online volunteers here. What Mike Petty MBE discovered was the newspaper article of the occasion where the diaries were deposited in Cambridge. You can read Mike’s digitised version here.

Above – one of the most detailed copies of a photograph I’ve seen of the old Town Gaol on Parker’s Piece – where Queen Anne Terrace Victorian mansions were built, and later Queen Anne Terrace car park and the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre after the former buildings were found to be unsafe after the bombing of Parker’s Piece in WWII.

Douglas Oliver, a journalist with the Cambridge Evening News during the 1960s writes:

“A Victorian prison governor’s journal which opens a window on the history of Cambridge Town Gaol during a significant period of penal reform was brought by its present owner when she visited the city yesterday. THe handwritten book was kept by John Edis, governor of the town gaol from December 1839 to January 1865. His great grandniece, Mrs Norah Hagger is a Borstal matron in Dover [a harsh prison for young male offenders] and has inherited the journal which covers from October 1843 until Mr Edis retired.

“I met Mrs Hagger at her mother’s house at 31 Herbert Street, Cambridge and she showed the old journal. It was kept during a time when many abuses in prison life were still customary – the sentencing and imprisoning of children, transportation to the opposite side of the world, birching and flogging of juveniles, and poor prison fare. The journal has been edited for the Prison Service Journal by Mrs J.E. Kelley, the assistant director of the Women’s Establishments. She points out:

“What, however, seems the saddest is how things are described that have remained unchanged. The insane, epileptics, the subnormal, the inadequate, the deprived, still all too often find themselves in prison…”

“A macabre note in the journal for October 20, 1843 reads, for instance:

“GW fell from the wheel this morning in a fit of epilepsy to which he appears to have long been subject. I have instructed the turnkey not to put him on the wheel again.”

On the Piece

“The Gaol he talks about was the new one opened in 1829 on Parker’s Piece. It cost £25,000, held about 50 prisoners, and served to house such prisoners as vagrants, women, children, remands in custody, felons awaiting transportation, drunks, and those who had committed misdemeanours, says Mrs Kelley.

“The Spinning House, opened in 1628, was still [then] used to imprison prostitutes. Mr Edis records in 1854 housing 33 females in the gaol committed by the Vice Chancellor during the rebuilding of the Spinning House. In those days, the University had power to commit prostitutes. [Note several people had issues with this!]

“Mr Edis must have been a man of compassion for it is often noted how he gave financial help to prisoners on discharge and he would investigate prisoners’ circumstances thoroughly. This compassion was often aroused and it is curious to spot its Victorian overtones as he records one of the most distressing scenes it had ever been to witness. This was the farewell visit of the W. family, consisting of the aged wife, one daughter, two sons, and their wives. And he notes they were all persons of respectability, which seems to have given the farewells between relatives and prisoners an added poignancy.

“A sense of changing prison philosophy runs through the journal. In 1839 a new Prisons Act had repealed certain provisions of the 1823 Act and substituted a system of permission to adopt the system of solitary confinement. On July 12 1851, the Cambridge governor reports taking 10 single cells into use.

Boys birched

“By September the same year, three youths combined to resist confinement in the separate cells which they with all other prisoners evidently detested. But shortly afterwards there was more provision made for separate cells.

“Before 1846 there is no record of whipping, flogging, or birching. After that year, juvenile boys are birched on first admission into prison. This went on until 1854 when the Reformatory Schools Act provided that children of 14 and less should go to school after 14 days in prison.

“But the general impression from this journal, to a layman at least, is that Mr Edis would have made a good governor today. For where the measures seem harsh, it was a harshness of the day, not in himself. On only three occasions were prisoners put into irons, two for attempted escape and one for extreme violence.

Above – Mrs Norah Hagger with her copy of the old Cambridge Prison Journal.


It would be lovely to get the journals digitised and transcribed because they will give an insight into the social life of Cambridge’s urban poor (and rural poor at a time of significant population growth) which are all-too-easily overlooked in favour of the significant changes that were looming in and around the colleges.

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